Kenya: Meeting Celebrated Liberian Poet-Scholar Wesley

By Khainga O’okwemba

Prof Patricia Jabbeh Wesley, is a phenomenal woman. She’s a literary giant. She’s a leading African woman literary scholar and writer.

She visited our shores, met students and their teachers at the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and at the University of Nairobi, before leaving for Kisii for the third edition of the Kistrech International Poetry Festival.

Even after living and teaching in the USA – Penn State University, Altoona – for 24 years, Patricia still retains the African character in tone and sensibility.

She’s not like the confused and pretentious Africans who go out there and quickly lose their relevance when they return on the continent as purveyors of intellectual quibbles as “queer theorists.”

Indeed, as former South African President Thabo Mbeki reminds us, “the African is capable of original thought.”

In other words, the African produced knowledge that was exported to civilise the world.

In fact this was the underlying thesis of Patricia’s paper at the festival: The Beauty and Difficulty of Writing African Poetry/Literature in America.

The theme of home and exile is overwhelming in Patricia’s poetry and scholarly work. A survivor of the Liberian Civil War, an acclaimed African literary scholar and writer, Prof Patricia was going to be a guest on Kenya’s premier literature programme, The Books Café on KBC.

“Professor let’s talk about your country Liberia, first. The history we were taught in school is that Liberia is country of freed slaves,” I said.

I was touching on Liberia’s raw nerve to provoke, if not to make the good professor angry.

But she kept her composure: “Let me make a correction about the history you were mistaught.”

But the outspoken Liberian poet-scholar was going to be fearless: “Liberia is not a country of freed slaves; I am an indigenous; I am from the Grebo tribe; we were there; our ancestors were there; our forefathers were there when a bunch of freed American slaves were forcefully sent to West Africa to found a nation in order to get rid of the black people in America; It was not of the good intention either; The whites wanted to depopulate the blacks in America.

Blacks were sent as a scapegoat. They were sent away so that the suffering they had endured in slavery would be forgotten; it was to purge black people from America so that they would not get the reward of freedom,” Prof Patricia said.

It was the distinguished Ugandan political scientist Prof Okello Oculi who once told me that the civil wars in Sierra Leon and Liberia could be traced to the animosities between the indigenes and the slave descendants who were settled there.

Prof Patricia confirmed this fear: “the few American slaves who landed in Liberia had the privilege and support of their fathers -former slave masters – and they founded a government based on the American system – the flag, holidays, streets and places – were given names” that were alien to the indigenes.

“After 142 years, we ended up in a civil war which had its roots in that culture of the suppression of the majority of the people,” Prof Patricia observes. Liberia is a country of 16 indigenous tribes who make 98 per cent of the population.

Patricia Jebbeh Wesley pic: www.writingforpeace.org

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